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Penny Armytage on Black Saturday, collaborative government

“I still find myself attracted to the hard, contested issues. I keep wondering why I don’t just want to go and do some straightforward consultancy!” jokes former Victorian Justice Department secretary Penny Armytage when asked about her move from the public service to the private sector.

Armytage became a partner in charge at KPMG Australia in 2012 following a nine-year stint as a departmental secretary, where she oversaw 6000 directly employed staff and a budget of $3.9 billion. As the head of Justice, Armytage was responsible for providing policy and advice across six portfolios: Attorney-General’s, Police and Emergency Services, Corrections, Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Racing.

Since moving to KPMG, Armytage says she’s been working in a range of public policy areas at both state and federal level, including some of the tough social issues in which she’s had a historical interest: justice and security, corrections, immigration, Attorney-General’s.

“There are some issues where I think that people like me who have experience in the public sector and now in the private sector should be trying to contribute to some of the more difficult programmatic issues being faced,” she told The Mandarin. “I still find myself attracted to probably the most contentious of those.”

Beginning her professional life as a social worker, she worked her way up to commissioner of Victoria’s Office of Correctional Services before becoming executive director of operations at the Department of Human Services in 2002-03, prior to taking the top job at Justice.

She was key to Victoria’s whole-of-government response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and subsequent royal commission, chairing the weekly State Co-ordination and Management Council meeting. She told the IPAA Victoria State Summit last year that it was “the best example of joined-up government I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of”.

Having a clear mandate and accountability in the form of a published report — not to mention an obvious moral reason for co-operating -– helped the response flourish where other joined-up initiatives have failed, she says.

“My experience would be that the issue you’re joining up about has to be of such significance that it warrants attention from across agencies,” she said. “It was a matter of such proportion that it needed a very concentrated effort. I think it’s that that gives the mandate for public servants to be working very differently.

“When we work across organisational boundaries, sometimes even within an individual agency, that collaborative effort is much harder for people to do.”

“What I’ve reflected on is the government’s recognition that they needed to not only have a political process — so a cabinet committee driving that co-ordination — but that that was complemented by how we had a whole-of-government response both in the immediate aftermath and in the preparation for the royal commission.

“When I look back, things that made it work, from my point of view, were the fact that I was given the mandate to take that forward and bring the players and keep them at the table … Having that mandate to take that role also meant that there was an accountability from me back to government directly — on behalf of us collectively — about what we were doing to respond to that.”

Asked about her advice on joined-up initiatives, given criticism of past implementation efforts, Armytage emphasises the importance of early planning.

“You want people to join up where the collective is better than agencies doing their own bit, where there’s an understanding of the interdependencies between the various contributions that can be made …

“Sometimes there may be opportunities to have a bigger impact provided more time is spent in the initial conceptualisation of what it is that’s the problem that’s trying to be addressed and why, then establishing a vision for the end game that you want, and then designing how you might get there.

“From time-to-time in other joined-up initiatives, that early upfront evidence base about what you’re trying to achieve, and then conceptual work, isn’t given enough time and attention to make sure that you’ve got the right direction being set at the beginning.

“When we work across organisational boundaries, sometimes even within an individual agency, that collaborative effort is much harder for people to do. We’re less skilled at doing that than we are at being clear that this is the contribution that we personally need to make or our agency needs to make.

“It goes to that issue about from whom do you get the authority to be able to take the action, and to whom are you accountable for the contribution you might make. For me, that’s about we need to become more comfortable with fluid boundaries and accountability and still remaining committed that this is a priority and something we should be giving time, attention and effort to.”

Payment for results

Armytage is positive about the possibilities of increasing contestability in social policy, especially the notion of payment for results. “We’re seeing some really exciting opportunities for people to think differently about how to deal with some intractable social policy issues,” she said.

“That’s where we’re looking at escalating demand … and often even when there’s significant resourcing, the longer-term outcomes aren’t necessarily showing that it’s had the impact that we might have wanted.

“They are saying let’s try a different way of working that on the evidence appears to have the ingredients of success, and bring in a different range of partners. You’re bringing together the perspectives of consumers, clients, potential beneficiaries of the initiative, alongside policymakers in government, as well as academics and business.”

But it’s not always so easy to get the evidence. And governments often end up “wondering whether or not we’re making progress”, Armytage says.

“Today we still have so many systems across the public sector where it’s repeatedly said we just can’t extract the information in the way we need to. Hence data analytics is becoming a bigger and bigger industry where there is a perspective about what you can get out of the data, but you still need to have the systems that are able to talk to each other so you extract that information. Working through how we can overcome that is going to be a really big key to us actually saying we have evidence-based policy,” she said.

“The other thing is that sometimes the evidence is going to take a long time to actually become evident. Sometimes we have to be braver in saying what we are going to use as proxies to indicate progress … even if it’s not absolutely authoritative at that point in time.”

She says she’s a fan of public-private partnerships for the different perspectives they introduce into government and the competitive tension generated when public services are opened up to contestability. But, “it’s interesting that you haven’t seen many jurisdictions that have gone exclusively to one form of service delivery”.

“Some of the alliance models being created are bringing together the expertise of a global provider with a localised service delivery provider or a very creative small agency or even academic affiliations … The UK has put out their Transforming Rehabilitation papers; you see things in the UK where they’re looking at what’s the relationship between fire services and policing, for example,” she said. “They’re looking to mix up a whole lot of service delivery models that might be non-traditional, that might have better results for their community.”

Using GPS to monitor offenders

Armytage believes technology will continue to play an important role in changing how institutions work by delivering services in a “smarter” way. It’s inevitable that transactions will be increasingly affected by technology as citizens become used to using the internet in their day-to-day lives, for example.

There is also significant potential for governments in using gadgets to manage risk, she adds, such as “GPS being used increasingly for the monitoring of those at risk of causing harm in our community. It’s not now being restricted to just serious sex offenders, there’s a growing cohort where governments might be wanting to monitor the activities of certain citizens in the interests of broader public safety.

“That whole question about how technology can help manage some of the risks in service delivery that are faced by governments when there’s increasingly reduced tolerance for adverse events, that’s something we’re only just beginning to see, I suspect.”

One of the benefits of working for a global company, she argues, is the capacity to call on specialised knowledge of a range of jurisdictions. She cites Britain’s recent focus on re-examining the role of local authorities in governance as an area with implications for the Australian federation, as well as UK efficiency drives of recent years.

“The UK, driven by very strong fiscal constraint in recent times, has been very creative about the way they’ve approached the biggest challenges,” she said. “We haven’t faced that same driving imperative that has mandated the level of efficiencies and budget savings in our budget environment. Nonetheless, there are many areas of service delivery reform that are relevant from the UK that have an application in Australia.”

And although the usual Anglophone suspects still provide much food for thought, there are interesting developments happening all around the world: “We are increasingly looking to less obvious countries where there isn’t that immediate relationship … KPMG has been doing work around modern cities looking at a whole diverse range of countries where you’ve seen cities modernise and transform their ways of working. They could be in South America, or Europe or Asia.”

More at The Mandarin: Joined-up government: does it connect the policy dots?

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.